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Iraq turmoil evokes painful memories for veterans

“It’s disheartening,” said Marine veteran Chris Lessard of Newton.

“It’s disheartening,” said Marine veteran Chris Lessard of Newton.

The Iraqi Army, assembled and armed by American dollars, has fled as Sunni insurgents push toward Baghdad, severely damaging US hopes for a stable, inclusive democracy in the heart of the Middle East.

For many American veterans who fought in Iraq, the images of jihadists, some brandishing US-made weapons commandeered from US-trained troops, are gut-wrenching. Psychic wounds are being reopened, and nagging questions are being asked again.

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Was eight years of sacrifice — in blood and treasure, in lives lost and lives shattered — worth the effort?

To veterans of Iraq, the answer, like the war itself, is complex. There is pride in a difficult mission, and in gains made in Iraq’s civil society. But the flight of the Iraqi Army and the bitter political fragmentation there have prompted reactions ranging from disappointment to disgust.

“I’m not surprised that this is happening. I think it was somewhat inevitable,” said Chris Lessard, a 36-year-old Newton firefighter who was a Marine machine-gunner in Iraq from 2004 to 2005. “But to see it’s been pretty much handed over, it’s disheartening.”

Lessard said he believed in the US mission while he was fighting in Iraq, based near Fallujah. But now, with the Iraqi Army in disarray and Sunni and Shi’ite unable to work together, Lessard does not want the United States to reenter a centuries-old conflict that massive amounts of American money and military force could not resolve.

“This is Iraq’s problem now,” Lessard said. “I don’t think we should even give them one round of ammunition. They need to govern.”

‘It’s not something America can control. The Iraqi government is really at fault here. . . . I’m afraid there’s not much we can do about it’

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The war in Iraq took the lives of 4,486 American service members. During the better times, spurts of progress occurred in civil society, infrastructure, and military training. But during the worst, the threats of improvised explosive devices, suicide bombers, and snipers made the country a hellish place for US troops.

Doug Harding, who was raised in Lincoln, was there at the beginning and at the end. He commanded a front-line artillery battalion in the March 2003 invasion, and he watched the last US troops cross from Iraq into Kuwait in December 2011. Like many other veterans of that long war, he is digesting the reports from Iraq with disappointment.

“What a shame, because I was pretty proud of what we accomplished over the years,” said Harding, a retired Army colonel who lives in Leavenworth, Kan. “Watching the last soldiers come out of Iraq, it felt like there was still some unfinished business. But I felt we had provided that country with an opportunity.”

As Sunni insurgents rumble toward Baghdad, President Obama and his aides are urgently weighing the US response. Obama has said he will not recommit troops to the country, but that airstrikes are not off the table.

“I think our hands are somewhat tied in what we can do and what we can’t do,” Harding said. “We obviously need to share intelligence and figure out what they can do, but I’m not advocating putting boots on the ground.”

Seth Moulton of Salem, who was part of the first Marine company to enter Baghdad, echoed Harding’s caution.

“It’s not something America can control,” said the 35-year-old Moulton, who served four tours in Iraq. “The Iraqi government is really at fault here. So even though it’s very sad, I’m afraid there’s not much we can do about it.”

“I’m opposed to the war. I think it was a mistake,” said Moulton, who is challenging Representative John F. Tierney for the North Shore congressional seat in the Democratic primary. “But it’s still difficult to see it fall apart because a lot of Americans gave their lives to try to make a better future for Iraq.”

Brian VanRiper, a former Pembroke resident and Marine who served in Iraq from 2003 to 2004, does not frame war in terms of lives lost and sacrifices made. An analytical approach to recent events in Iraq better serves the cause, he said.

“I would urge caution in making a quick, emotional, reactionary decision as opposed to one that is best for the people of Iraq and the people of America,” said VanRiper, 33, who lives in Los Angeles. “I’m not quite sure what we could do for the government of Iraq that we haven’t already done that can guarantee their success in this situation.”

Glenn Benoit, a former Army National Guard sergeant who served in Iraq from 2003 to 2004, said he felt he made a positive difference in helping train Iraqi police.

“The progression during the year I was over there went very well,” said Benoit, a 36-year-old who lives in Northampton in transitional housing provided by the nonprofit group Soldier On. But that was then, and this is now.

“All I can say now is back off and let what’s going to happen, happen,” Benoit said. “All the money we’ve spent, all the lives we’ve lost, it’s ridiculous.”

Harding, the retired colonel, who spent 30 years in the Army, said part of his reaction to the setbacks in Iraq is intertwined with the toll that three tours took on his family. During dinner recently, Harding said, he spoke with his wife and two younger boys about the war and about the sacrifices they all had made.

“This was never about occupying another country,” Harding said in an interview. “It was about getting rid of an Iraqi dictator, and I got to see how happy the Iraqis were in those first days. I thought the sacrifices we made were tough but worth it.”

More than two years have passed since the last US troops left Iraq, but the long war has never ended for many veterans and their families. For them, the news of city after city falling to the insurgents has made the war seem fresher still.

“There are a lot of Americans that have a lot invested in this,” Harding said. “It’s OK to go two steps forward and one step back, but it’s not good to go two steps forward and five steps back.”

Globe correspondent Claire McNeill contributed to this report. She can be reached at claire.mcneill@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @clairemcneill. Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at macquarrie@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeMacQuarrie.
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